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Court affirms verdict for Mercy Hospital housekeeper

The Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District has upheld a judgment of more than $376,000 awarded to a Mercy Hospital St. Louis housekeeper in her disability discrimination suit against the hospital.

On March 17, a three-judge panel unanimously ruled in favor of Tammie McKinney.

McKinney brought her claim of disability discrimination against the hospital in St. Louis County in 2015, after she was terminated in 2014. She alleged the hospital fired her because she suffered from arthritis and degenerative spinal disease, although it did not interfere with her work.

At trial in 2018, a jury awarded her $17,000 in compensatory damages, according to the opinion, written by Judge Sherri B. Sullivan. Judge Joseph S. Dueker also awarded McKinney $347,550 in attorneys’ fees and $12,174 in costs, according to the opinion.

Mercy appealed, arguing that McKinney failed to present sufficient evidence of a disability under the Missouri Human Rights Act, and further, that she failed to show Mercy discriminated against her.

The panel disagreed on both points.

The hospital also argued McKinney’s claim should be barred by judicial estoppel because she received Social Security Disability benefits by making claims that were inconsistent with claims in her lawsuit.

The panel again disagreed, relying on the Missouri Supreme Court’s 2019 ruling in Vacca v. Missouri Department of Labor & Industrial Relations, involving an administrative law judge who sued his employer for a disability claim while also arguing in a marriage dissolution that he was unable to work.

Sullivan said one point distinguishing McKinney’s case from Vacca is that Mercy never asked the trial court to apply judicial estoppel. McKinney argued that the issue is not preserved for appeal.

Mercy countered that a footnote in Vacca suggests that judicial estoppel may be raised by any court on its own, including appellate courts. Even though Mercy failed to raise the issue, the record contained sufficient facts for the panel to review, Sullivan said.

The panel ruled that Mercy failed to demonstrate on the record before the court, however, that McKinney’s positions are truly inconsistent. Presiding Judge Mary K. Hoff and Judge Angela T. Quigless concurred.

“As Vacca points out, claims for SSD and disability discrimination claims ‘can comfortably exist side by side,’” Sullivan said. “This is because the statutory language defining both claims does not overlap perfectly; therefore, we cannot presume that an application for SSD benefits must inherently conflict with a claim of disability discrimination under the MHRA because ‘disability’ means different things in different contexts.”

She said the panel must look to McKinney’s specific claims and determine whether she’d given a sufficient explanation for any alleged discrepancy. The panel concluded she had.

The panel also awarded attorneys’ fees for her appeal and remanded the case for the trial court to determine the amount.

James M. Paul of Ogletree Deakins represented the hospital. Edward D. “Chip” Robertson Jr. of Bartimus Frickleton Robertson Rader in Jefferson City represented McKinney. Neither could be reached for comment.

The case is McKinney v. Mercy Hospital St. Louis, ED107400.